27 December 1963: Revisiting the Sacrilege

27 December 1963:  Revisiting the Sacrilege

The shocking news caused widespread bereavement and anguish among people who in no time poured on the streets in tens of thousands – barefooted, bareheaded, wailing and grieving

Fifty-four years ago this day, an act of serious sacrilege plunged Kashmir into grief and fury never witnessed before. As people in Srinagar woke up to an icy Friday morning on the 7th day of Chilai Kalan (the 40-day long harshest period of Kashmir winter), a shocking news spread like wildfire across the city. The Moi-e-Muqqadas (strand of holy hair of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) was missing from the Hazratbal shrine, its abode for 300 years where it had arrived from Bijapur (Deccan) in south India during the reign of Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707 AD). The outer doors of the hujra-e-khas (special chamber where the sacred relic was kept) “were hanging on hinges while the inner doors were found sawed through from the bottom”. The shocking news caused widespread bereavement and anguish among people who in no time poured on the streets in tens of thousands – barefooted, bareheaded, wailing and grieving, and shouting the slogan, Moi-e-Rasool-e-paak ko Wapas karo ae zalimo (O, Tormentors! Return the sacred hair of the Holy Messenger) and chanting ‘Allah-o-Akbar (Allah is Great) and Ya Rasool Allah (O, Messenger of Allah). 

For several days, protests continued across the Valley. Large processions from different parts of Kashmir daily marched into Srinagar, demanding immediate return of the holy relic. Men, women and children refused to return to the comforts of their homes and stayed outdoors for days in sub-zero temperature. Roadside community kitchens were set up everywhere in the city to feed thousands of people arriving from towns and villages. People generously offered food grains, vegetables, cooking oil and firewood to run these feeding centers. An atmosphere of brotherhood and fellowship encompassed Kashmir with nobody indulging in black-marketing and profiteering. Traders, in fact, sold food commodities at cheaper rates. An ‘Action Committee for Recovery of the Moi-e-Muqqadas’ was formed under the teenaged Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Molvi Muhammad Farooq. In, reality senior leader Maulana Mohammad Sayeed Masoodi was the brain behind the Committee with Saifuddin Qari, Mufti Jalal ud Din, Mufti Bashir ud Din and Dr. Farooq Abdullah among members.

On 28 December, a large gathering of people at Lal Chowk was incensed by an ‘objectionable remark’ made by Bakhshi Abdur Rashid, General Secretary of the ruling National Conference and kin of former Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad. An irate mob threw kangris (firepots) at him. He ran for cover leaving behind his Villy Jeep which angry people pushed down the Amira Kadal (bridge) into the Jhelum. Moments later, two cinema houses, Amresh and Regal, owned by the Bakhshis at the Residency Road, and some other buildings were also torched. The protesters also attacked Police Station Kothi Bagh and marched towards the Radio Kashmir building to set it ablaze for, what they alleged, fabricating news. Police fired bullets and tear smoke shells at agitators, resulting in the death of two persons and injuries to many others. The Government alleged that the mob attempted to burn alive a Superintendent of Police and the Additional Deputy Commissioner who were trapped in a burning police station. A 14-hour curfew was imposed in Srinagar which was extended for equal hours next day but anguished Kashmiris defied restrictions and took out processions. The whole Valley had plunged into chaos.

The sacrilegious act infuriated Muslims across the Subcontinent and in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) there were unfortunate incidents of violence against non-Muslims and, as retaliation, against Muslims in India’s West Bengal. However, at Ground Zero, Kashmiris demonstrated a shining example of communal amity. Not a single non-Muslim was harmed. On their part, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists in Jammu & Kashmir expressed solidarity with Muslims and at places even joined protest marches. 

Simultaneous with Hazratbal incident, the mausoleum of Shah Asrar ud Din, a revered shrine at Kishtwar, 204 kms south-east of Srinagar, caught fire. Local people interpreted the incident as an expression of Shah’s rage over the sacrilege in Srinagar. 

The removal of the holy relic and the consequent civil unrest became world news. The entire foreign press corps had flown in from New Delhi to report the situation as it unfolded. Newspapers across Europe and America published elaborate reports. Media in Pakistan including the State run Radio Pakistan, gave prominence to developments in Kashmir with India accusing the neighboring country of “working up anti-India hysteria”. Developments in the Valley were also debated in the Security Council after Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had requested an urgent meeting to consider, what he termed as, the “grave situation” in Kashmir. 

People’s outpouring and widespread demonstrations shook the Government both in Srinagar and Delhi. Jawaharlal Nehru whose health was on decline after India’s defeat in the Sino-India War of 1962, thought that he had lost Kashmir. He took to the All India Radio to express his grief over the sacrilege, assured Kashmiris that he will leave no stone unturned in the recovery of holy relic and urged for calm. Next day, he made another appeal on radio. Kashmir Prime Minister Shamsuddin’s similar message was also played on Radio Kashmir over and over again. In solidarity with grieving masses, Shamsuddin said that he was “shedding tears over this unfortunate tragic incident’ and would, if it were of any use, “sacrifice his eyes for the recovery of the Moi-i-Muqqadas” He announced a reward of Rs. 1, 00,000 and an annual payment of Rs. 500 for life to anyone who traces or helps in tracing the missing relic.  The people, however, greeted official reassuring noises with contempt. The situation seemed turning out of hand for the Government which had literally collapsed. Frantic meetings were held by Nehru in Delhi with President Radhakrishnan and Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri, M C Chagla, Gulzari Lal Nnada and Director, Central Intelligence Bureau, Bhola Nath Mullick. At one point in time, a team of officers including Indian Home Secretary Vishwanathan and an Inspector General of Police was kept ready in Delhi to take over the local Administration in Kashmir. The Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, Noor Mohammad, panicked with the happenings, went to the nearest Army Brigade Commander and asked him to “take over”. The later demanded a written request which the D C did not have.

Amid protests, mourning and political upheaval, the Government of India, on 4 January 1964, suddenly announced ‘recovery’ of the holy relic. However, it refused to divulge details. Bhola Nath Mullik, who was specially sent to Srinagar by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as ‘my trusted man’ to deal with the emerging situation and ensure recovery of the Moi-i-Muqqadas, said that since his investigation had made it so hot for them, the thieves had expeditiously returned the sacred relic to the Hazratbal shrine. However, he had no answer when asked how was it possible for a person to go unnoticed while returning the stolen possession when thousands of people were standing guard at the shrine round the clock. Years later, Mullik wrote in his book, My Years with Nehru – Kashmir, “This was an intelligence operation, never to be disclosed.” Syed Mir Qasim, who was a minister and a prominent political character during the crisis and who about a decade later became the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, claimed (in his Daastan-i-Hayat) that he passed on to the Home Ministry of India a recorded statement of a person who had come to him to disclose details about the removal and recovery of the holy relic. “The recorded statement”, Qasim adds, “is with the Home Ministry” but, surprisingly, he himself chose to hold back information.

The announcement of recovery was immediately greeted by a demand for identification of the Moi-i-Muqqadas amid allegations that the Government had substituted, not recovered the holy relic. Both, Mullik and Vishwanathan vehemently rejected the demand, arguing that those who want identification were playing in the hands of Pakistan. However, as Kashmiris did not budge from their demand, the Government of India yielded to the pressure. On 3 February 1964, a group of prominent religious and political leaders headed by a revered spiritual personality, Syed Meerak Shah Kashani of Shalimar, was asked to view and identify the ‘recovered’ relic which, as the Government claimed, attested to its genuineness. The vial containing the relic was raised to the face of Syed Meerak Shah who was reported to have recited an Urdu verse in the praise of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): Kya shaan-i-Ahmadi ka chaman mai zahoor hai Har gul mai har shajar mai Muhammad ka noor hai (The Garden is bright with the light of Muhammad. The light of Muhammad is reflected in every flower and every plant). Post identification, a public deedar (view) of the Holy relic was organized on 6 February coinciding with the anniversary of martyrdom of the fourth Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Ali (peace be upon him). The holy relic was displayed by Khawaja Nooruddin Banday as the new caretaker of the Hazratbal shrine. 

There were divergent versions about the identification event. The New Yorker quoted Syed Meerak Shah as saying that it was not difficult for him to recognize the holy hair as he had seen it many times before and remembered even the smallest details about it. He was also reported to have referred to his ‘inner vision’ testifying to the genuineness of the relic. Those who doubted the genuineness of the recovered relic asked how an 80 year old person with failing eyesight could identify it. Pakistan also raised this doubt. S A S Qadri, then a Secretary to J&K Government who was assigned special duty to look after law and order, told this author that at the time of identification, Syed Meerak Shah stated that “the relic attributed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was acceptable to us”. Mufti Azam Molvi Bashiruddin, said his uncle, Mufti Ghulam Mohammad who was part of the identification team, later confirmed to him that the relic was indeed the original. 

Various rumours making rounds during those tumultuous days on who removed the sacred relic named different individuals and political parties. Some people blamed Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad for the theft to, what they alleged, force his return to power. Under the Kamraj Plan, he had been tricked into resigning from the position of Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmi a few months ago and was now nursing his wounds. Others accused anti Bakhshi group of engineering removal of the holy relic to rid the Administration of the overbearing influence the former Prime Minister was able to exercise without actually holding any office. Some alleged that the theft was staged to pressurize the Government of India to release Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who had been languishing in jail for a long time. From jail, Abdullah wrote a letter to the President of India stating that “the sacrilege was the logical outcome of corrupt Indian practices in Kashmir.” On its part, the Government of India accused Pakistan for fomenting trouble in the Valley by removing the Moi-i-Muqqadas from Hazratbal, even as Nehru, in a message to Bakhshi, said it “can be the work of some miscreant who wants the Government of Jammu & Kashmir to suffer.” The Muttawalis (caretakers) of the holy relic were also under the scanner. 

Yet another version of the story was that the disappearance of the holy relic was actually a clandestine but “harmless and temporary removal” to arrange a special deedar for a terminally ill lady of the Bakhshi family but since the family had failed to return the relic in time, the caretakers who had allegedly facilitated its temporary removal were unnerved for the fear of getting exposed. The holy occasion of Shab-i-Baraat (Night of Fortune) when Hazratbal shrine attracts a large number of devotees, was only two days away. To avoid a looming disaster, it was alleged, the ‘drama’ of theft was enacted. Years later, a caretaker of the shrine is said to have admitted this before late Syed Nooruddin Geelani, a spiritual person of high standing, when the later asked him what actually had happened that inauspicious night in 1963. A disciple of Noor Sahib who shared this incident, was present when the caretaker reportedly also revealed that it was not the first time that the sacred relic was secretly removed from the shrine for a special deedar.   

After the ‘recovery and identification’ the cry for Asli mujrim ko paish karo (produce the real culprit) and Saazish ko nanga karo (expose the conspiracy) got louder. The Government of India, despite assurances of coming up clean on the issue, did not reveal details about how the theft and the recovery of the sacred relic took place. On 17 February 1964, Union Home Minister Gulzari Lal Nanda plainly refused to share information about the accused but, less than a week later, named Abdur Rahim Banday, chief caretaker of the holy relic, Abdur Rashid, an agriculture assistant, and a third person, Ghulam Qadir Bhat, as the accused. Nanda told the Parliament that Rashid was apprehended while restoring the holy relic to the Hazratbal shrine. About Bhat, the minister said that he had been frequently crossing the Line of Actual Control. The accused were arrested and a case filed against them but nobody, not even the State Government headed by Sadiq, believed that they were the men behind the theft. Mir Qasim recalls his and Chief Minister Sadiq’s meetings with Mullik and Lal Bahadur Shastri, Minister without portfolio in Nehru’s cabinet who had been flown to Kashmir to manage the crisis, during which they told them that they believed the accused persons were not the culprits, and those responsible for the sacrilege should be unmasked. Qasim quotes Mullik responding, “Who was the real culprit, where did he belong to and why did he remove it [holy relic]? This secret will remain in my dark chambers and, for some reasons I am not ready to reveal it to anyone.” 

The Government further made the whole situation messy. Soon after the agitation for restoration of the holy relic was called off, it reinstated accused Abdur Rashid on his post in the agriculture department. Banday was released on bail but debarred from displaying the holy relic at the shrine until one time when the position was restored to him, and Bhat was reported to have crossed over to Pakistan. Curiously, no further inquiry was conducted nor any case filed in a court of law. What is incomprehensible, however, is the refusal of the Government of India to expose the conspiracy if Pakistan or forces inimical to the State of India within Kashmir were behind the sacrilege. Another question that begs answer is whether Mullik or any other intelligence agency interrogated the person whose recorded statement on the incident Qasim had forwarded to the Government. Until these questions are answered, it would look like Mullik, in order to justify his larger than life image and that flattering comment by Nehru that “You have saved Kashmir for India”, was hiding facts only to give an impression that he had indeed defeated a great conspiracy against India.  

TAILPIECE: Three important developments followed the incident of 27 December 1963 and the massive agitation born out of it. One, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was released from jail on 8 April 1964. Two, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, still a political heavyweight calling the shots through his protégé interim Prime Minister Shamsuddin, was politically decimated, and third, Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq was catapulted to power, paving the way for massive erosion of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution guaranteeing autonomy to Jammu & Kashmir. At the Indo-Pak level, an ailing Nehru fresh with the China experience, felt that if Kashmir could explode like this on, what he thought, a simple issue it was time to do something about it. In May 1964, he sent Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to Pakistan for talks with President Ayub Khan. However, Abdullah had hardly met Ayub when Nehru suffered a paralytic attack and passed away on 27 May 1964. The Kashmiri leader had to beat a hasty retreat from Islamabad. Later, Ayub claimed Abdullah had come with Nehru’s proposal of confederation between India, Pakistan and Kashmir which he rejected outright. Subsequent events like launching of the Operation Gibraltar by Pakistan in Kashmir and breaking out of a full scale war between India and Pakistan in September 1965 buried forever the demand for exposing ‘the conspiracy’ and producing ‘the real culprits’ of 27 December 1963.

 

(Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book, Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative’ was released recently.)